“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” – 2 Cor. 13:14
Someone once said of the doctrine of the Trinity: “Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind. Try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul!” I agree. The concept of the one God as a trinity of co-equal, yet distinct, persons is the most intellectually taxing and baffling doctrine in Scripture. It is a mystery that transcends reason, in the sense that we cannot exhaustively comprehend it, yet does not violate reason or require that we believe a logical contradiction.
Does the doctrine of the Trinity demand that the Christian perform some sort of convoluted spiritual arithmetic? After all, how can 1 + 1 + 1 = 1? To answer this, we must give full weight to three lines of evidence in the Bible.
First, the Bible is decidedly monotheistic. That there is but one God is an assertion at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4; see also 1 Cor. 8:4-6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Exod. 3:13-15; 15:11; 20:2-3; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6; 45:5-6; 45:14,18,21-22; 46:9; Zech. 14:9; John 17:3; James 2:19; Rom. 3:30. In summary, there is but one God and one God only.
Second, the Bible is no less clear that the Father is God, as is the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit. But how can three be God and yet God be one? There is no escaping the fact that the biblical authors assert both truths. Clearly the Godhead is not an undifferentiated solitary oneness, but a oneness that subsists in multiplicity.
Third, alongside the biblical testimony that God is one and that three are God is the multitude of texts which in some fashion unite the three who are God; hence our term triunity. In addition to 2 Corinthians 13:14, we could also point to Matthew 28:19 and Ephesians 4:4-6. On several occasions the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mentioned together in united activity or purpose relating to the life and ministry of Jesus: at his conception (Lk. 1:35), baptism (Mt. 3:16-17; John 1:33-34), in the working of his miracles (Mt. 12:28), and at his ascension (Lk. 24:49). The three are also portrayed as united in the work of revelation and redemption (see Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 14:17-18; 15:16,30; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18-22; 3:14-19; Col. 1:6-8; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-6; Heb. 10:29; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 4:2,13-14; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5).
As far as I can tell, there are only three possible ways to respond to this evidence. The first alternative is to stress the unity of the one God to the exclusion of the full and co-equal deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This view, rightly denounced by the early church as heretical, is found in virtually all expressions of contemporary Unitarianism and in most forms of theological liberalism.
The second alternative is to stress the distinctiveness of the Father, Son, and Spirit to such a degree that the result is Tritheism, a form of Polytheism (i.e., multiple gods). The only link among the three is that they share a common purpose or will. Stress is placed on the personhood of each, the essence of which is autonomy and independent self-consciousness.
The third and, I believe, only legitimate and biblical option is to accept without alteration both the oneness of God and the full deity of Father, Son, and Spirit. This is done by saying that God is one in essence and three in person. Historic Trinitarianism does not assert that God is one and three in the same sense. Rather, that in respect to which God is one is essence (or substance), and that in respect to which God is three is person. In affirming triunity in God we are saying that God is one in a sense different from the sense in which he is three. We may thus speak about Father, Son, and Spirit both in terms of what is common to all (the divine essence or nature) and what is proper or peculiar to each (person). The Father is the same God as the Son and Spirit but not the same person. The Son is the same God as the Father and Spirit but not the same person. The Spirit is the same God as the Father and Son but not the same person. Or again, relative to deity, Father, Son, and Spirit are the same. Relative to person, they are distinct.
What I am saying, then, is that there is a sense in which God is one (essence) and a sense in which God is three (person). The one God exists eternally in three distinct but not independent persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is neither logically contradictory nor inconsistent with Scripture. So much more could and should be said of the triune nature of God, but I must move on.
Paul’s desire or wish, perhaps we could even say his prayer, is that the Corinthians and we would experience that grace which flows from the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle earlier mentioned “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). It was the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that Paul was assured would prove “sufficient” to sustain him beneath the burden of a painful “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Of course, we must not think that Christ is exclusively the source of grace or the Father of love or the Spirit of fellowship. The Father can also be the source of grace (1 Cor. 1:4; 2 Cor. 8:1), while love derives from both the Son and Spirit (2 Cor. 5:14; Rom. 8:35; 15:30). And we are all, by God’s grace, called into fellowship or communion with the Son (1 Cor. 1:9).
Whereas it is grammatically possible for Paul to be referring to our love for God, it is unlikely. What Paul has in view in speaking of “the love of God” is similar to what he described in Romans 5:5, where the “love of God” is poured out into the hearts of his children. These fresh and incessant infusions of God’s love are traceable to the Spirit’s work of awakening and quickening in us an experiential awareness of God’s deep and passionate affection for broken and struggling sinners.
In this parallel text in Romans 5, Paul is emphasizing the unstinting lavishness with which God has flooded our hearts with a sense of his love for us. Our hearts are immersed in this exuberant communication of God’s affection. This love does not descend as drops of dew but floods and fills the heart with wave upon wave of conscious conviction.
When we speak of the objective display of God’s love, we have in mind the sacrificial gift of his Son on our behalf (Rom. 5:6-8). But in both 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Romans 5:5, Paul’s focus is on the subjective or experiential awakening of the soul to this remarkable truth. In other words, Paul isn’t talking about knowledge that we gain by inference from a body of evidence. This is an assurance of being God’s beloved that is fundamentally intuitive. One knows it to be true because through the internal work of the Spirit one knows it to be true!
Finally, and no less important, is his desire that we experience “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” But what does this mean? Some contend that this is our fellowship or communion with the Spirit, our enjoyment of his presence and daily attentiveness to his voice. In other words, the Spirit is viewed as the one who evokes in our hearts a joyful participation in him, or a partaking of him and living in daily dependence upon him. If so, it would be similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that we all “were made to drink of one Spirit”. As true as this is in its own right, I think Paul has something else in mind.
The communion or fellowship in view is what the Spirit produces in us with one another. When interpreted this way, it ties in with the earlier statement in v. 11 regarding living in peace and agreement with one another. The Spirit alone can overcome our prejudice and resistance to others in the body of Christ and create authentic community and heartfelt affection one for another. If this is what Paul has in mind, and I believe it is, a parallel passage would be Ephesians 4:3 where he exhorts us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the body of peace.” The Spirit graciously unites us in a bond of fellowship or communion that we must diligently preserve.
There would appear to be no better or more spiritually appropriate way to conclude than by singing:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
– Sam Storms